On Feb. 20, Chapel Hill's Burmese community took to Franklin Street carrying Burmese flags and protest signs. From the courthouse building to Al’s Burger Shack and back, young students and elder community leaders chanted “Justice for Myanmar."
Some onlookers honked in support, and I overheard several questioning what was going on.
Why were they on the streets?
On Feb. 1, the military deposed the democratically elected National League for Democracy, declaring the previous November elections invalid and imposing a year-long state of emergency with Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Min Aung Hlaing in charge of the country. President U Win Myint and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi were detained.
The Franklin Street protest seems small in comparison to the amount of people flooding the streets of Myanmar’s major cities in protest of the recent military coup. The Southeast Asian country has seen many peaceful protests since the coup happened, but the military has cracked down on them.
Tear gas has been employed throughout the month to deal with the ongoing civil unrest, but things have now escalated. On Sunday, reports of police firing into crowds of protesters began flooding social media. The United Nations estimates that 18 protesters were killed.
All of this is happening an ocean away, so why is it important to Chapel Hill and the UNC community? To begin with, as the Franklin Street march demonstrated, the Burmese community in Chapel Hill might be bigger than you think.
Displaced Burmese people have been seeking refuge for several years. Between 2012 and 2013, a democratic wave in the country forced Burmese and specifically Karen refugees to resettle, with some of them landing here in Chapel Hill. The community has been growing ever since, with a younger generation growing up here.
Catching the protest by chance, I was captivated by the shouts for democracy. People of all ages had gathered to bring awareness to an issue that affects their friends and relatives at home.
I had the chance to speak to two young girls who were at the very front of the march, initially mistaking them for UNC students. However, after talking with them, I discovered they were high school students of Burmese descent who felt compelled to join the march.
They agreed to be interviewed, and spoke about their reasoning for coming out to protest that day.
The two girls explained that the people of Myanmar are tired, and that they were out there to show that they support them even if they are far away.
“The people in Myanmar, they don’t have a voice," one of them said. "Here we have the first amendment, we have freedom of speech. They speak out about it, they can get punished, they can get killed. There’s a big Burmese community here in Chapel Hill and I think it is our duty to speak out so people are aware of what’s going on in our home country.”
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